I had surgery mid week last week and have spent the better part of the last seven days in bed recovering. Last night I had one of those “experiences” you might be familiar with courtesy of my pain medication. I am speaking of one of those experiences where you wake up from a dream, it is pitch black in the room, and you realize your face is numb – yet the dream you just had was so incredibly bizarre yet meaningful and you feel extremely lucid. Once I realized where I was at I decided to wait till morning to see if I still remembered the dream and more importantly, decide if it was still meaningful. I did, it does, so I ask that you indulge me a bit longer as I explain it to you and why it has meaning.

In my dream I was host at a party that had all the coworkers I had known over the past 20 years of work. The party was being held at what can be best described as the beer tent at a carnival being held at a military base. If you haven’t been to one of these picture summertime, late evening, an extremely large tent, gravel on the ground, metal tables and chairs, the smell of barbecued food mixed with beer, lots of noise and a ton of people milling about eating and drinking.

Superimposed on this dream was the statement: WHAT KIND OF LEADER ARE YOU? Written in big block letters, appearing every few minutes. Interspersed with that statement were the following phrases from an article I had read earlier in the day: STRATEGIC, INNOVATOR, CARE TAKER, ALIGNMENT, ROI. The dream went on for what seemed like eternity as I ate, drank and laughed with my former and current coworkers with “Fight the Good Fight” by Triumph blaring in the background and those WORDS flashing up every few minutes.

Finally it was over, I awoke, and the symbolism in it was extremely apparent to me. I knew “exactly” what kind of leader I am and more importantly – why. Kind of cool to get answers in your sleep don’t you think?

In any case, getting back to the question “WHAT KIND OF LEADER ARE YOU?” to answer it truthfully, you have to admit to yourself that to a large degree you are the sum of your experiences. Thus for me, I am largely the product of the organizations that I have been a part of over the years. Each of these organizations can be described as “embattled” with lofty goals but pitifully few resources devoted to it. Neither my departments nor the organizations they were part of ever had enough staff or funding to do everything set out for them. Yet my employees and coworkers fought the good fight every day in a war that we could not win, where small victories had to be celebrated, and the knowledge that while we had hope, things wouldn’t get too much better than they are but could always get decidedly worse.

So what kind of leader does the above make me? Flexible. I am all those things and more that kept flashing by in my dream, just not always at the same time. Can’t be, because I don’t have the resources to be all of them all the time, and because many times I don’t have the resources to be a single one to an extreme degree. I am a “just in time” leader bringing what is needed most by the organization and my unit when it’s needed and to the best degree possible given my situation.

Because I am a “just in time” leader, I am pretty good at sizing up the situation and bringing “what’s needed the mostest” now. If I am particularly skillful and lucky I can combine what’s needed now with what will be needed in the future and end up with both strategic and perhaps innovative solutions being brought to bear on the situation.

Because I come from embattled organizations, I take great care with my resources – I don’t spend foolishly and everything I spend on usually serves a dual role at a minimum. I don’t have money or people to waste. I also don’t spend my money all at once, pacing it out over a project or a year because you can’t know what is coming and there are no “extra” funds to be made available. My units are never in the red.

Because I come from embattled organizations, I care and it’s personal. Otherwise, why would I come back to work every day and why do I tend to seek out these types of organizations? Because of this, I care about the type of service I and my unit provide to our customers. We don’t have the luxury of excess resources to not get things right the first time. That’s not to say we don’t make mistakes, but my expectation is that we should not make them.

The organizations I come from (and they varied in size) were always “personal.” Perhaps it was/is the nature of the work but you always felt a part of something – never just a cog in a machine. And although no one is irreplaceable, you felt needed and wanted. Then again, perhaps that just comes from the “us against the world” mentality. In any case, it makes work more fun to come to. Because of this, I have always felt I was kind of a blue collar – white collar worker. I wear a suit and tie and know how to eat with the correct fork at a dinner – yet I know that all a tie is good for is cutting off blood flow to the brain and good work comes from good people no matter how they are dressed.

Lastly, the kind of leader I am is me. There isn’t much if any difference between me as a leader and me being a husband, coworker, and friend. You are getting what I present and represent and if you don’t like it, then I am probably not working for you anyway.

So now that I know what kind of leader I am, if I am suddenly placed in an organization that is less personal, with an embarrassment of riches for resources, and perhaps a less “lofty” mission or purpose – would I fail? I don’t think so – I’m flexible and failure is not something I do – at least willingly. Would I be happy? Who knows? I have never had the opportunity. Would I lead differently? No. That much I am sure of.

So in the end, my time in the sick bed provided some unexpected introspection which is always a good thing for anyone in a leadership position. No matter how you answer the question “WHAT KIND OF LEADER ARE YOU?” you need to be sure of your answer. If you are in a leadership position and your answer is “I DON’T KNOW” than I think you might have more work cut out for you than if you answered it affirmatively and know you need to change some things. So I hope my bizarre dream encourages you to take stock in what kind of leader your environments have shaped you into and hope you are happy with the results – and the next time you see a beer tent – take a look around – you never know who might be inside.

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